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May Day Public Hearing on West Berkeley Developments (News Analysis)

By Toni Mester
Thursday April 26, 2012 - 11:20:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council will hear public testimony on the controversial master use permit zoning amendments on Tuesday May 1 in its second floor chamber at 2134 Martin Luther King Jr. Way. The meeting starts at 7 PM with the public hearing scheduled for the first item on the action calendar after the consent items. Members of the public who wish to be heard should arrive at approximately 7:30. The meeting will be broadcast on cable channel 33.

The master use permits are the second part of The West Berkeley Project, which the City planners see as improvements to the 1993 West Berkeley Plan and an important incentive for economic growth, but which the Project’s critics view as a threat to current jobs and affordable land. Many area residents also fear a massive traffic jam in the making and the corporate takeover of Aquatic Park.

The City is proposing increased building heights to 75 feet with a mechanical penthouse up to 100 feet and a 50% increase in the floor area ratio (FAR) determining building mass, on nine sites, most of them south of University Avenue. 

Hot Spots 

Two of these sites have sparked debate: the Jones Family property (American Soils), adjacent to Aquatic Park and the nearby parcels along Fourth Street owned by Doug Herst, the founder of Peerless Lighting. 

The Jones parcel formed part of a submission for the second site of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories (LBNL) before the Labs chose the UC Richmond Field Station. The current proposal would allow buildings the size of the Saul Zaentz Media Center (the Fantasy Building on 9th St) to be located directly on Bolivar Drive, the Aquatic Park access road. 

The City hopes that biotech enterprises spun-off from the Labs will locate there, but this possibility alarms environmental groups who want to preserve the Park for recreation, wildlife habitat and open space. Large buildings would block the views of the hills from trails, picnic areas, and the pedestrian bridge that links Aquatic Park with McLaughlin East Shore Park and the Berkeley waterfront. The Sierra Club, Golden Gate Audubon Society, and Citizens for East Shore Parks (CESP) have united in urging the City to keep the current height limit of 45' and provide setbacks adequate to protect the birds. Over 70 avian species feed, nest, or over-winter in the lagoons, a favorite spot for local birders. 

Another controversial hot-spot contains the Herst properties on either side of 4th St. from the railroad tracks to 5th St, which the owner wants to develop into a project called Peerless Greens and promotes as a complete community where people would live and work, erasing commute time, traffic, and emissions. 

Rick Auerbach, the staff of WEBAIC (West Berkeley Artisans and Industrial Companies), has been the lead critic of the current version of this project because it violates the separation of residential and manufacturing and threatens to displace existing companies and jobs through conflicts of use and land speculation. Since the project spans two zones, one that allows for housing and one that does not, it could be reconfigured to avoid such problems, but the City wants the flexibility to mix uses and increase density. 

Daniel Baker, the CEO of Poly Seal at Channing and 4th, a 30 year old company that employs 15 people and needs to expand, complains that vacant properties have been held off the market because the owners anticipate an increase in value due to City policies. In April he wrote a letter to the Council stating, “Berkeley should not sacrifice the last small area (only 4% of the total city land area) that is supporting a vibrant network of businesses. The high density residential projects that are being considered for the MUP sites should not be placed in the West Berkeley industrial zones.” 

The Peerless project has caught the attention of Robert Gammon, an editor of The East Bay Express, who has twice written feature articles about it, “Back to the Green Future” in April of 2010 and “The Battle Over Life-Work Communities” in the latest issue. 

Gammon covers the land-use debate but misses the small print that local activists notice. One is the minute size of the 320 units, an average of less than 600 square feet, according to calculations provided by Darrell deTienne, agent for the project. This “workforce housing”, which some neighbors call “hives for worker bees,” is not sized for families; nor is the project located in an area that would be attractive to parents, especially single mothers. There is no provision for daycare, and the plaza and garden are located on busy 4th Street surrounded by factories and warehousing. The EIR describes many “significant and unavoidable” environmental impacts from traffic, toxic air contaminants, noise, and odors that make the area undesirable for children and other sensitive receptors. 

Family housing is a crucial element in reducing long commutes, and the demand for homes in West Berkeley exceeds the supply. Trina Ostrander, community relations manager at Bayer, says that their employees reside as far away as Tracy and Hercules. Demand has kept home prices high in Berkeley, despite the recession, and many families of long standing are “cashing out” and relocating. No doubt, the law of supply and demand is largely responsible for the exodus of African-Americans. In the last census period, Berkeley lost almost 20% of its black population. 

Planning Commissioner David Stoloff, appointed by Mayor Tom Bates, said at the March 21 meeting on the master use permits “the City needs housing” but he didn’t say what type or what size. In fact the last census found a vacancy rate of 6%. The City could conduct a survey to see how many children are living in the newer apartments and the size of vacant units to help planners arrive at a coherent and practical policy regarding the needs of families. 

Several West Berkeley areas are zoned for residences: the large, central R1-A, the Mixed Use Residential (MUR), Fourth St. Commercial, San Pablo and University Avenues, and the south side of Ashby, all of which are walking distance from the industrial zones. 

Getting to Yes 

The first controversy of the West Berkeley Project about uses allowed in the manufacturing zones has been resolved. Last year WEBAIC, which seeks to protect 7,000 existing jobs in 320 companies and 1,000 artists, reached a compromise that permits research and development in areas previously reserved for wholesale and warehouse. 

Compromise on the master use permits, while not impossible, is far less likely for many reasons. While the City planners were in constant contact with Rich Auerbach, the staff of WEBAIC, the residents of Berkeley west of San Pablo Avenue, who numbered 7235 in the last census, were not often consulted as stakeholders. The residents of the MUR, the buffer zone between manufacturing and purely residential, only met with staff twice in an effort to preserve their low scale neighborhood, but their interests have not gained political traction. 

Councilmember Darryl Moore, who represents District 2 including the area that will be most impacted by the proposed developments, met with a over one hundred residents in a public meeting in August of 2009 that often erupted into angry shouting. Since then, he has been remarkably quiet on the issue and did not mention the West Berkeley Project in a recent fund raising letter to constituents and supporters. Moore has consistently favored development, approves of the Peerless project, and has not offered any middle ground solution to the clash of interests. 

The timing of the Council vote comes at an awkward time for the City’s planning efforts. Dan Marks, the former Director of Development resigned July 1 of last year, and his replacement Eric Angstadt from Oakland takes over April 30, the day before the public hearing. Much of the zoning language was developed by subordinates, and it’s unlikely that Angstadt, who is a CEQA expert, will be have adequate time to absorb the lengthy environmental reports related to the Project, including a supplement that won’t be available until mid-May. 

The supplemental EIR has already come under attack by Tom Lippe, the lawyer representing a neighborhood coalition known as SWBA, Sustainable West Berkeley Alliance, and to complicate matters even further was an abrupt change in policy that now allows residential use in the manufacturing zones. Dan Marks was opposed to creating such conflicts of incompatible uses, and the FEIR clearly stated that policy, which has now been overturned. 

Did Dan Marks resign in the middle of this major planning effort because of irreconcilable differences with the Council or because of a lawsuit against him and his deputy Debra Sanderson, which the City settled out of court for $250,000? The action, brought by planner Alan Gatzke, can be read as a conflict of personalities, policies, or both. 

Angstadt has a reputation as a people person and problem solver, and he is going to need all the skills and experience at his command to take charge of this multi-faceted and fraught issue. If not, he will be left with a muddle not of his own making, which may weaken his ability to lead. The Berkeley City Council should consider delaying action on the Master Use Permits until he fully takes charge and the necessary compromises can be affected, or they will be responsible for dragging us into yet another zoning war. 

Toni Mester is a resident of West Berkeley.